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Air quality – Introduction

Air pollution has been one of Europe's main political concerns since the late 1970s. European Union policy on air quality aims to develop and implement appropriate instruments to improve air quality. The main instruments are a series of Directives setting ambient air quality standards to provide protection from excessive pollution concentrations, based on the latest research on the health effects of air pollution.  The first major instrument was the Air Quality Framework Directive 96/62/EC and its daughter Directives, which established standards for a range of pollutants including ozone, particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), in the period up to 2004.  As part of the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, the Commission proposed to consolidate the Framework Directive and the first three daughter directives into a single Ambient Air Quality Directive, adopted as 2008/50/EC, and to set objectives for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).  Together with the fourth daughter Directive 2004/107/EC, the Ambient Air Quality Directive provides the current framework for the control of ambient concentrations of air pollution in the EU. The control of emissions from mobile sources, improving fuel quality and promoting and integrating environmental protection requirements into the transport and energy sector are part of these aims.

European legislation on air quality is built on certain principles. The first of these is that the Member States divide their territory into a number of zones and agglomerations. In these zones and agglomerations, the Member States should undertake assessments of air pollution levels using measurements, modelling and other empirical techniques – and report air quality data to the European Commission accordingly. Where levels are elevated above limit or target values (see air quality standards), Member States should prepare an air quality plan or programme to address the sources responsible and so ensure compliance with the limit value before the date when the limit value formally enters into force. In addition, information on air quality should be disseminated to the public.

Background information on pollutants and their effects on health can be found in the Air Quality Guidelines of the WHO and information on other air pollution effects and data can be obtained from the European Environment Agency.